Dan Jewel
March 17, 1997 12:00 PM

ANY SHOWBIZ VETERAN WILL tell you: sometimes it’s a hard-knock life. But Joanna Pacitti is learning that lesson early. Just last month, the 12-year-old was on her way to Broadway as the lead in the 20th-anniversary production of Annie. In late February, she recalls, the company manager pulled her aside. “He said I’d grown into the part; I was fabulous,” Pacitti says. Three days later—and one month before her Broadway opening on March 26—Joanna was fired.

“She’s a terrific singer,” says co-producer Rodger Hess. “But we never felt the chemistry between her and Daddy Warbucks.” And so, after 106 road performances, the producers replaced Pacitti with her 8-year-old understudy, Brittny Kissinger.

The whole ordeal has left Pacitti—and her parents—momentarily shell-shocked. The seventh grader, who began singing in her father’s Philadelphia barbershop when she was barely 6, made her acting debut as an orphan in a dinner-theater production of Annie when she was 9. “I’d come home every night,” she recalls, “and say to my mom, ‘Just once, I want to play Annie.’ My dream was to get to Broadway.”

Last August, it seemed that dream would come true. Pacitti was chosen over 2,000 others in a nationwide talent search sponsored by Macy’s and began a road tour in November. But after she was sidelined with the flu for three days, her manager, Patti Claffy, learned the producers planned to divide the role between Pacitti and her understudy. Claffy asked for their terms in writing. Two days later, Pacitti got the ax by fax.

“My heart just cracked right in half,” Pacitti says. “I cried for two days straight.” Still, she doesn’t blame her replacement. “We were pretty close friends, me and Brittny,” she says. “She’s a very talented girl. What happened is not her fault.”

Attorneys for the Pacitti family agree—but are considering whether to pursue a lawsuit against Macy’s or the show’s producers. They contend that the talent search was a contest and, as winner, Pacitti is entitled to claim her prize. Says a Macy’s spokesperson: “It was not a contest. It was an audition.”

Meanwhile, Pacitti is getting the big-time celeb treatment: fans wave at her on the streets of Manhattan; Andrea McArdle, who played the original 1977 Broadway Annie—and who was herself a last-minute replacement—announced she would boycott the revival; and last Tuesday, Rosie O’Donnell gave Pacitti the stage on her morning show. The little actress belted out “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”

What’s next? Says Joanna’s mother, Stella, a homemaker: “We’ll try to get the house back to normal.” But Joanna has a different idea. Last week she auditioned for undisclosed Disney and Warner Brothers projects and, she adds, “I want to try a movie. I’d have to go to California for that.” The sun, it seems, is already coming out again.

DAN JEWEL

NANCY MATSUMOTO in New York City

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